Thursday, July 26, 2012

More MOOC Misery

This may be flogging a dead horse, but following from the earlier posts about Massive Open Online Courses, Marc Bousquet nicely summed it up on the Chronic.


If institutions really wanted to sustain participatory learning, they would already be doing so, for instance, by reducing lectures and high-stakes testing, investing in teaching-intensive faculty and the like. Instead, driven less by cost concerns than a desire to standardize and control both faculty and curriculum, administrations rely more than ever on lectures and tests.

It’s hard to imagine that an education vendor, particularly one driven by profit, will do more than use Siemens’s and Downes’s excellent, sincere efforts as a tissue-paper justification for passing off cheap “social media opportunities” as a substitute for sustained interaction with working professional academics.



  1. I take issue with the "rely more than ever on lectures and tests".

    Barring data, I doubt the education system of 60 years ago cared or attempted things like "flipped" classrooms, or in-class guided peer review. The farthest higher education got from the lecture was a breakout of large lectures into small(er) problem groups lead by a TA.

    I wasn't here 60 years ago, but my 15 year old undergrad education was lectures and labs, with very few higher level courses taught seminar or discussion style. One class, the monstrous Chem lecture that housed 1/2 of my year's cohort, had breakout sessions with a TA.

    Academia is experimenting with participatory learning. Where it goes will depend on the successes. I hope there are successes, because I see some value in more open, and more available, self-paced opportunities. However, for the masses, a piece of paper suggesting they were able to keep their nose to the grindstone for X length of time will be the most important thing they get out of any education.

    1. I agree with this. I'm not at all sure that participatory learning has ever been the norm (though maybe more so in the humanities, and/or in SLACs, than elsewhere).

  2. Bousquet sums up the issues beautifully. I especially liked this description of what learning entails (or should entail):

    Good MOOC’s, in their view, foreground and sustain the social dimension of learning and active practices, i.e., knowledge production rather than knowledge consumption. To a limited extent, certain experiments in MOOC’s that foreground social media participation over “content mastery” realize some of the ideals of Siemen and Downes.

    College is, or should be, all about learning to make new knowledge, or at least understanding how knowledge is made (and that it is provisional, contextual, and therefore subject to change).

    Bousqet also refers later on to "sustained interaction with working professional academics" as a key element of successful education. At the moment, I'm managing to provide this, I think, in my online courses (well, give or take the fact that the amount of time I have to devote to being a "working professional academic," in the sense of one who produces original research, is limited. But I do still fit the definition; I may be slow, but I'm an active researcher). But my courses aren't MOOCs. And the only way I can think of to make a MOOC come even close (and only close) to meeting this standard would be to adapt the strongest version of the traditional lecture class: recorded lectures, plus small discussion sections run by the professor (one or two sections) and TAs who are in close touch with the professor (the rest of the sections), all created anew each semester, in real time. That could be done, but it's not cheap. The minute you start doing things that save money, you also lose quality. For instance, as Bousquet alludes to, the entity creating the lectures and the entity running discussion sections (and giving tests or assigning papers and other individual projects -- absolutely necessary in the humanities) don't have to be the same, but then you lose the connectivity between the lectures, discussions, and assignments. You lose a lot when/if the next week's lecture can't draw on the conversation in the professor's discussion section from the previous week, and the TAs' reports from their own sections, because it was recorded a month (or a year, or 3 or 4 or 5 years) ago (this might be a bit less of a problem in transferring a course that the professor had taught a number of times to a MOOC, since some student reactions and questions could be anticipated. But, as we all know, students change, often very quickly, and current events often connect in the most surprising, and useful, ways to what we teach). I realize the lecture/discussion section format doesn't always work the way I've described in practice (yellowed lecture notes/stale powerpoints and star proffies too busy to meet with their TAs are a reality), but that's how it works when it's done well (and it can be done well).

    1. CC wrote: The minute you start doing things that save money, you also lose quality.

      There's the rub. I have an acquaintance who thinks the world consists only of market forces. If there are too many academics, academic work gets cheaper - and without limit. There would be, according to him, no loss in quality if art historians and English majors taught for free, if only there were enough of them out there to make the market yield that price. He compares it to air - Adam Smith's famous example. Air is free not because it has no value, but because there is plenty of it.

      But we only have to look at airline pilots or any other complex job to know that isn't the case for everything. All passenger aircraft could now be flown by people who enjoy flying as a hobby. There are enough people who would volunteer to do the flying for free. For some reason, the airlines know this isn't a good idea. The only difference is that the drop in quality in the case of airplanes would be more immediately and measurably noticeable. The first indications would no doubt make CNN.

      Even if you found enough people willing to go through all the necessary training and get as qualified as real current pilots, paying them nothing would mean that many of them are hungry, distracted (by paid work), under-slept, resentful/angry (dangerous!) and looking for ways to cut corners. I know this because in part because this is exactly what I observe in my own behavior.

  3. "I doubt the education system of 60 years ago cared or attempted things like "flipped" classrooms, or in-class guided peer review. The farthest higher education got from the lecture was a breakout of large lectures into small(er) problem groups lead by a TA"

    No, that's not true. The elite of 60 years ago got small seminars using the Socratic method, which the elite of today get too. My colleagues at Stanford have classes of 15-30 undergrads. I teach 120 at a time, no discussion sections. I know I teach as well as my colleagues at Stanford (as I too have taught seminars of 15-30 at my previous job). But their students emerge better educated, period. Mine know a lot of stupid factoids and a few interpretive moves; theirs know how to do full-bore analysis. I cannot teach sustained analysis in lecture mode to 120 students, because there is no small-scale practicum within which they can work on it.


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